Tourism is Britain’s fourth biggest industry – it is also the most destructive. Ancient buildings, monuments and the very landscape itself cannot withstand the constant tramping underfoot of the invading hordes. Nor do the inhabitants of once sleepy hamlets and secluded backwaters relish being woken from the peace of centuries by the inrushing tide of the curious, the distracted, the footloose, and the ignorant.
These are truths to which we prefer to remain impervious. Just as we would rather not hear about the destructive effects of the motor car lest our own mobility be affected, we would rather tourism flourished than be deprived of the income. It was brave, then, of Chris Green, chief executive of English Heritage, to warn that the great grockle explosion is “a modern madness”.
Last year, 5 million daytrippers descended upon the historic city of Chester, more than 2 million fetched up at Canterbury, whose cathedral floor is showing signs of damage. “There is also damage at Winchester and Rochester,” says Mr Green. “At Wells, the Chapter House steps have been seriously eroded. Modern tourists have caused more damage there in a generation than in the past four centuries.”
Hadrian’s Wall, he adds, is being lost for ever at the rate of an inch a year as people walk not alongside it, but on top of it.
Sadly, though inevitably, Mr Green has no answer to the horrors he describes, other than to “diffuse” visitors by increasing the advertising of sites across the country, a policy that causes great discomfort and dismay to those whose towns and villages become the haunts of the diffusees.
In Cumbria, over which 2 million tourists trample each year, sometimes causing beauty spots to reach what is described chillingly as “saturation point”, staff at the 33 information centres lighten their load by having a laugh at the visitors. Among the enquiries they fielded last year was a call from London asking: “Is the Lake District those ornamental ponds in Manchester?” A Japanese film crew put in a request for trained badgers and hedgehogs, which they wanted to hire for an unspecified purpose. A US visitor was recorded as saying: “I’d like to buy a copy of that poem Peter Rabbit wrote about daffodils.” And a New Zealand couple angrily returned a “confusing and useless” Ordnance Survey map: it turned out that the elusive “narrow lanes” they were desperate to explore were, in fact, the contour lines of the Lakeland fells.
Mr Green weeps, the tourist officials in Cumbria laugh, the great, gaping masses tramp on. It is an unstoppable tragedy unfolding before our eyes. It suffers, however, from being neither a modish nor a medical problem and therefore unsuitable for official hysteria. Unlike obesity, which has become a wildly fashionable cause for concern.
Those of us who watch the trends in concern, rather in the way that observers of haute couture follow the rise and fall in hemlines, have seen first smoking, then passive smoking give way to cholesterol, which is usurped by salt, then sugar, which in turn yields place to alcohol, only to be ousted by unprotected sex and mad cows. Dizzily, one after the other, concerns whirl into the limelight then fade away before being thrust forward yet again in a ceaseless tarantella of threats, statistics, forebodings, and the most exquisitely pleasurable wringing of hands.
But seldom, in more than a decade of concern spotting, has there been anything quite as satisfying to monitor and record as the emergence of obesity. From being nowhere in the great panoply of concern less than two years ago, obesity has swept all before it. Starting as a cloud no larger than a moderately swollen abdomen, it has swelled into a vast, all-encompassing set of buttocks that dominates the skyline to east, west, north, and south, easily extinguishing the feeble rays of concern about dangerous supermarket trolleys and cancer-bearing mobile phones that fitfully try to break through.
That we are dealing here with a prize concern, a superb specimen, is borne out by the language of those who wallow ecstatically in its embrace. The World Health Organisation, a kind of monstrous, lardy, swollen version of our own Health Education Authority, declares that the world “faces a potentially disastrous epidemic of obesity”.
Half the populations of some countries are seriously overweight, it shouts excitedly. The latest figures (certain to be superseded soon by something much more alarming) indicate that every single man, woman and child in the US will be obese by the year 2230, which is admittedly quite a few years away but a thrilling prospect all the same. Most gratifying of all is that obesity can be made to encompass scores of other concerns. Obesity is high blood pressure, it is heart disease, it is arthritis, it is back problems, it is simply wonderful.
One answer, says the WHO, is for populations to return to a “more rural, active lifestyle”. Fat chance. Another, so far unmentioned but being explored in this country, is for the population to march up and down in their millions over fells and hills, across prehistoric mounds, through centuries-old cathedrals and castles, through village greens and fields of wheat, along Roman walls and under Saxon monuments, sustained in their labours by nothing more than cream teas, hamburgers, and fishpaste sandwiches.